Mangaís release schedules are always dominated by big
name anime series like Naruto and
Bleach, so sometimes their high quality
but lesser known titles arrive with little fanfare, Such is the way with TO,
a double bill of short sci-fi films from Vexille director Fumihiko Sori,
but as is often the case TO really deserves more.
TO is the kind of title that doesnít come around all too often. Itís true hard-core sci-fi, and presents a vision of the future thatís both plausible and intriguing. Both stories, despite only running for around 45 minutes each, paint a vivid picture of humanity expanding beyond the confines of our planet, but not beyond the conflicts and prejudices of society. The two stories are both packed with intriguing ideas, my favourite being the idea of a space cannon that fires supplies to the moon colony. Itís a clever idea that Iíve not come across before,
and itís an example of just how inventive and interesting TO is as a science fiction piece. However, the storyís strength is looking at space through the frame of humanity, referencing the physical and emotional needs of the characters and how space exploration affects it. The story gives glimpses of future human society but keeps its focus away from Earth, providing hints of terrestrial racial conflict, diminishing resources and a need to explore and expand but keeping the story focused around a small group of characters cut off from society as a whole. This gives the story a personal edge and makes everything seem more real, the small insights into everyday life make it feel like thereís a living, breathing world beyond the story.
The CG animation on display is particularly impressive too,
with a cel-shaded but relatively realistic look to the characters that is
reminiscent of the teamís previous work on Vexille. They still have
yet to get the movement completely right (thereís still a floaty element to some
of it), but the mechanical design and the animation of the alien world is simply
stunning. Story-wise the first of the two films is probably better, it has a far
more personal story and none of the political manoeuvring of the second, but for
sheer spectacle the second one wins out. The alien world is brilliantly
realised, its native flora and fauna looks very alien and combined with the hazy
air and inhospitable rocky ground give it a true otherworldly atmosphere that
few sci-fi stories manage to capture. The characters are interesting, even
if some of them are a little flat, and the drama when it comes is quite
My main problem with TO is the action. Both stories end up with a military conflict of sorts, whether fighting off terrorists or dispatching bombers to attack a rival colony, and whilst the action is well done it unbalances the story. TO has some great ideas and its strength lies in how the characters react to the challenges of interstellar travel and life on other worlds, not in how they fight with each other. Most of the intriguing aspects of the first story, such as the logistics and impact of a 15 year journey both on those undertaking it and those left behind,
are obscured by a swashbuckling battle between the crew and terrorists. It leaves many questions unanswered, such as how terrorists from a starving nation can afford such hi-tech equipment, why someone can jump through a space station window which is supposedly strong enough to withstand the vacuum of space and why a ship returning from a vitally important 15 year mission and carrying the most valuable commodity in the galaxy isnít met by an escort, especially when there is a problem with terrorism. The second storyís Romeo & Juliet style setup is a bit laboured too, and the military conflict the two factions are aiming for shifts focus away from the attempts to understand and document alien life and how humanity can adapt to living in a world so far removed from our own. Thereís also the usual niggle of hearing noises in space, which is common but a bit disappointing when thereís such a focus on realism elsewhere.
Sci-fi is a genre with limitless scope, the stories do not have to be confined by human experience and for the most part TO is science fiction in the truest sense. The animation is excellent and the design is breathtaking, but best of all itís packed with ideas and builds a believable setting that is far bigger than the stories shown here, yet manages to retain its character focus and pose some intriguing questions. It makes some missteps, the Shakespearian overtones to the second story are the most unoriginal aspect of the whole thing, and seems a little too contrived as a setup, and the focus on space battles is a disappointment, but simply because it distracts from the more interesting dramatic elements of the story. If this had been a straight drama it would be getting five stars, some may have found that prospect a little dry but itís not exactly one for the action fans as it is, the action seems unnecessary and doesnít really add to the story in any way. If it had avoided this and continued to focus on the character interactions and explored its setting more thoroughly it could have been a real classic, as it stands it is still one of the best classical sci-fi titles currently available and I only wish there was a sequel.
A good selection of extras here, with lengthy interviews with Fumihiko Sori and the principle cast members of each of the two films sitting alongside the usual trailers, TV spots and promo vids. Good stuff.